The Staying Power of Radio

A discussion on the Media Ecology Association listserv got me thinking about the endurance of radio as a communications medium.  Although its days as the ultimate form of home entertainment are long gone, it has managed to evolve and survive multiple threats from competing media and an ever changing culture.  Radio has adapted to new technology and new audience habits since its inception, and even though it may not be as glamorous or buzzworthy as film, television, or the Internet, it continues to remain relevant. 

The wireless transmission of sound over the airwaves is the result of the pioneering work of Guglielmo Marconi, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Popov, and others.  It became a mass medium and brought the world to people's living rooms.  People listened as broadcasts informed them of local, national, and international news. 

Radio also became a tool for war as armies and navies used electronic wireless technology to communicate, and a tool for politics as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used it to transmit his "fireside chats" to every single home with a radio receiver.  During the Cold War, radio became a primary propaganda engine, used to spread messages about Western ideology and culture to the countries under Communist domination.

During the peak of its popularity, radio co-existed with movies as a mainstream form of entertainment.  Cinema was an opportunity, like theater but on a much wider scale, for a social outing.  People did not, however, have to leave their homes to enjoy radio.  Radio sets became beautifully designed pieces of furniture and families would make them the centerpieces of their living rooms.

The big threat came with television, which provided images along with the audio.  Audiences could now see the Lone Ranger and Tonto battling the bad guys, they could see images from around the world instead of just hearing a broadcaster describe what was happening.  Comedy stars transitioned from the apparent limits of radio to the new opportunities of TV where they could add visual humor to their repertoire.

Radio was saved by going mobile.  Just as television was taking over as the king of mass media, radio grabbed a foothold in the emerging teenage pop culture built around cars and rock 'n' roll.  Then the transitor radio allowed people to carry their entertainment with them, to listen to ballgames anywhere, to enjoy to music at the beach, to stay informed wherever they might be.

Radio has become a place for both mainstream and alternative content, whether it's Top 40 music stations or cult college stations, whether it's 24 hour newscasts that provide frequent updates on traffic and weather or controversial talk shows hosted by shockjocks or opinionated partisan pundits.

Now, as other media try to figure out how to deal with changing viewer habits, radio is again ahead of the curve.  Radio stations have embraced New Media, simulcasting their programming on the Internet, effectively expanding their reach beyond the limitations of their broadcast signal strength to the entire World Wide Web.  They have used the Internet to supplement their primary audio content with videos and images on their Web sites.  They have used social media as just another way to market themselves, which they do arguably better than any other medium, with countless marketing promotions and sometimes shameless gimmicks to drive listeners to their shows.  They have even embraced the timeshifting habits of many of the population by offering their own podcasts and their own remixed songs for people to download for their MP3 players. 

Whether terrestrial or satellite, radio continues to be a medium that evolves and changes with the times.  Radio has the same flaws and challenges as other mass media, dealing with commercialism, corporate monopolies, junk broadcasting, scandals, and lagging revenue streams, but the people in the radio industry seem to be more willing to take chances -- maybe because they know that their very survival is on the line. 

I, for one, embrace radio.  I am grateful that it brings me music, news, sportscasts and talkshow banter, and I hope it never goes away.

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